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A year after COVID-19 arrival, Mitchell School District soldiers forth

After early shutdown, live classes continue

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Mitchell High School students are dismissed for the day on Thursday afternoon. Officials with the Mitchell School District say the district masking mandate has likely led to some students leaving the district to open enroll in other districts or opt for homeschooling, though other area school districts have seen only minor changes in enrollment due to COVID-19 policies. (Matt Gade / Republic)

What a difference a year can make.

On March 13, 2020, Gov. Kristi Noem declared a state of emergency. Nine cases of COVID-19 had been detected in the state, and in an effort to help prevent the further spread of the deadly respiratory disease, the governor elected to request schools in the state to shut down. Kids and teachers were sent home and did not return to school in person for the rest of the year.

On almost the exact same date a year later, the school buildings of the Mitchell School District were abuzz with activity. Classes are in session live in the classroom, extracurricular activities are taking place and an in-school vaccination clinic for school teachers and employees was underway.

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South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem speaks about education amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in a press conference in a classroom at John Harris Elementary in Sioux Falls on Tuesday, July 28. (Jeremy Fugleberg/Forum News Service)

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The fight against COVID-19 continues around the world, but after a year of uncertainty, a steep learning curve and many personal sacrifices, some aspects of life are starting to look more like they did before the pandemic.

And that’s a good feeling.

Remote learning offers substitute

“It certainly feels a lot better than it did a year ago,” Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District, told the Mitchell Republic. “A year ago everyone was so discouraged when we sent the kids home. We thought it was going to be for at least three days, and pretty soon it became clear that we were going to lose that whole fourth quarter.”

The move to remove students and staff from school buildings last year was an understandable step, Graves said, but it also brought the district to some soul searching on how it could best complete its objective - giving the students the best possible educational experience while also protecting them and their fellow community members from COVID-19.

Students would not set foot in the classroom again until the start of the 2020-21 school year. For the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, remote online learning was implemented, and home living rooms became classrooms as students logged on for daily lessons with their teachers, their fellow friends and instructors reduced to images on a computer screen.

Keeping students and staff apart from each other would help prevent the spread of the disease, but it compromised the quality of their classroom experience despite the best efforts of a dedicated faculty and technology that could support the efforts.

“I’m an educator, so my first concern was that the education that we could provide the kids was not as good, and it wasn’t,” Graves said. “Our teachers did a fantastic job and we had the technology in place, we were way ahead of a lot, but still it was not nearly what we wanted.”

Remote learning removed everyone from the ideal learning environment. It was the most reasonable option to take at the time, Graves said. It allowed classroom instruction to continue, but could not offer the in-person touch that comes with a live teacher in a classroom of students.

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“We offered (eLearning) last year in the fourth quarter, and it’s been much better this year, nevertheless we’ve never really reached that comfort point where everybody really feels that we can do this and do this well, or 95 percent as well. We never got to that point, so it still has a ways to go to become satisfactory.”

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Mitchell Public Schools has a 1:1 ratio of students to an E-learning device which has made the shift from classrooms to learning at home easier for teachers and students to stay connected during the school closures as a result of the coronavirus threat. (Matt Gade / Republic)

While remote learning got the district through the end of the last school year, many events were affected, including graduation. Usually a time of coming together and celebrating with family and friends, the annual event was reduced to a virtual ceremony. But Graves and a task force gathered to help provide guidance through the pandemic were looking to keep kids in school for the 2020-21 school year.

The mask mandate

Of the steps the Mitchell School District took to get school back in session, the mask mandate that states anyone on district property must wear a face mask, initiated by the Mitchell Board of Education, was likely the most controversial. One of the first boards to issue such a rule in the state, the requirement brought heavy discussion and public commentary from the public at board meetings.

In the end, the board refused to back down on the rule , which is still in place to this day. Graves said, while the source of many debates and arguments, the mask mandate was the right move to make at that time.

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The Mitchell Board of Education Monday heard a report from Joe Graves, superintendent for the Mitchell School District, on the return of students to in-person classes at the Aug. 24 meeting of the board at Mitchell Middle School. From left to right are board members Kevin Kenkel, Neil Putnam, Deb Olson, Lacey Musick and Matt Christiansen. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

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“I think they definitely made the right decision. Even if it had not proven to be successful, I think it was still the right decision in terms of public health and our obligation to protect the health and safety of kids,” Graves said. “But in the end, it’s hard to argue with success. We haven’t missed a day for any reason, especially for COVID-19.”

Along with the mask mandate, the school implemented social distancing rules, installed protective barriers in certain locations and rearranged classrooms to provide as much physical space as possible. Disinfecting regimens were enhanced. Activities practices were held with an eye toward health safety, and attendance at indoor activities and athletics was restricted.

The district began issuing weekly COVID-19 infection numbers for the district, and as students and staff settled into a new routine, those numbers began to drop. Those statistics mirrored what appeared to be a gradual decline in new infections and hospitalizations in the state. The preventative measures were working.

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Officers with the Mitchell Police Division escort Reed Bender from the Monday evening meeting of the Mitchell Board of Education. Bender was removed from the premises after he refused to put on a face mask at the meeting, which is in violation of a district mandate that states all people on Mitchell School District property to wear a mask. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

“When they fell, it was a great sign, and a definite signal that we were going to be able to stay in school and have kids physically present,” Graves said.

Making adjustments

Michelle Mebius, a teacher at Mitchell Middle School, said as the 2020-21 school year approached, said there was some apprehension on how a return to live classes would pan out. But she knew it was a challenge facing teachers and administrators around the country.

“It was completely unknown. We were starting a new school year not knowing if we were going to be in school, so I was a little nervous,” Mebius said. “But it helped me keep things in perspective. We’re not alone in this.”

The district worked hard to offer fast training on relatively new technology, and teachers and staff dived in as best they could. Using the experience they gained with last year, the district eventually moved to a common platform for online communications to make the system more uniform.

“I thought we were really proactive as a district,” Mebius said.

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Mrs. Katie Murphy takes a paper from one of her students during Spanish class on recently at Mitchell High School. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Some students have opted to remote learn this year, so teachers like Mebius will sometimes teach both live and virtual students at the same time. Accommodating the different needs of both can be a challenge, she said.

“That has been one of the hardest things - how do I keep it active and engaging? That’s where my extra planning has gone,” Mebius said.

Mebius, 43, said the efforts have paid off by keeping school open to the point where the district hasn’t called off day of school yet this year. It’s a wonderful feeling compared to isolation many felt late last school year.

“I’m grateful that I’m here and we’re in school. No one knew for sure, but I am grateful that what we did worked,” Mebius said.

What it costs

The COVID-19 pandemic cost the district and its patrons plenty in 2020 and 2021. The loss of live classroom time and standardized testing last year impacted the effectiveness of teaching and learning. The loss of live events like graduation restricted attendance at sporting events cost students in terms of social growth and lifelong memories.

But the actual monetary cost of fighting COVID-19 in the district went to mitigation efforts and boosts to the staff and faculty who stepped up to work extra hours covering classes or disinfecting classrooms.


"Our custodial hours went up, as did maintenance. We bought sanitizer in barrels."

— Joe Graves


Steve Culhane, business manager for the Mitchell School District, said the cost of implementing safety measures in the district have been paid by federal COVID-19 relief funds that the school received in the fall. The school received $1,397,000 in funds to put toward efforts fighting the disease, and has been using that to offset what would otherwise usually be added cost to the school budget.

“That was a great shot in the arm,” Culhane said.

Cleaning supplies, overtime for those pulling extra duty, employee bonuses and paid sick leave were all areas that the relief funds were put into use. The fund still has money left in it, Culhane said, and it will continue to be used for those efforts as the district moves toward the conclusion for the school year.

Graves said the fund has been helpful for helping offset the costs of cleaning supplies alone.

“Our custodial hours went up, as did maintenance. We bought sanitizer in barrels,” Graves said. “There were significant costs, but that’s been covered by those (federal funds).”

While no decisions have been made on the issue, Graves said there were signs that the next school year will look more like a traditional school year. Masks may very well not be required, and the need for vast quantities of cleaning materials and long extra hours by faculty and staff will hopefully decrease as the pandemic appears to ebb.

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Mitchell School District Superintendent Joe Graves, left, and Mitchell High School Technology Director Levi Hohn, right, load a box full of computers into the back of Longfellow Elementary School Principal Lisa Heckenlaible's truck to take to the elementary school for distribution next week. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“Those costs will (eventually) disappear and we’ll go back to normal,” Graves said.

Moving forward

The school employee vaccination clinic held at district buildings on Thursday is a long-awaited step for those who teach and learn in the building. With Lewis Drug offering a round of vaccinations at district buildings, Graves said an important step to ensuring the safety of those in district buildings is maintained.

“The teachers have been very receptive. We’ve had signup lists at all the schools, so we’re going to be working out way through those. Monday they will be at L.B. Williams Elementary and Longfellow Elementary, and next week it will be at Mitchell Technical College, so we’re really getting it across the board,” Graves said.

Mebius was one of the teachers to take advantage of the opportunity Thursday. She opted for the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine variant and was pleased at the convenience and organization from Lewis Drug and the district.

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A syringe is filled with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during the vaccine clinic at the Avera Patient Financial Services building on Friday morning in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“I’m grateful it’s one shot. We were given the choice of what day and what (variant of) shot. And it was in our building during my planning period. It couldn’t have gotten any better,” Mebius said.

That is another trend that is growing across the state. As of Friday, the South Dakota Department of Health indicates that 31% of South Dakotans have received at least one dose of a vaccine, with 17.6% receiving their full treatment. And the rollout continues with area vaccine distribution being performed by Avera Health and other health care providers across the state.

President Joe Biden has said he wants vaccines available to all adults by May.

Should further efforts to fight COVID-19 prove effective enough to continue the decline in cases and hospitalization, teachers and administrators can hopefully look forward to days when the disease isn’t first and foremost on their minds as they work to educate the next generation of citizens.

Mebius said she would take the past year as a learning experience and hopes people will look at the big picture when reflecting on the challenges COVID-19 has presented.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how humanity is going to grow from this experience. Where are we going to go from here? What are we going to take away from this experience?” Mebius asked.

Graves said despite good progress, for now, the focus remains on educating in a world of COVID-19. But he looks forward to the time when he and teachers can get down to what they’re best at - teaching.

“Once this thing has passed, we’re going to return to the focus of continuous school improvement. How do we get better? How do we teach kids better? Part of that has been lost in this process,” Graves said. “We’ve tried to focus hard on it, as have teachers, but there is just a basic issue when you’re trying to just keep kids in school and do these extra things. It gets hard to keep that focus.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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